Compassion (and the art of crafting workplace culture)

A common misconception among inexperienced leaders is that it’s easy to build a unified culture. Quite the opposite. The larger an organization gets, the easier silos and micro-cultures develop. To build an intentional culture, you have to recognize that culture is in a perpetual state of construction and destruction, being continually crafted daily, through numerous interactions, behaviors, and conversations. Business leaders live with a natural tension stemming from a desire to have a built-to-last culture while simultaneously reconciling their organization’s cultural roots, when the values, norms, and acceptable behaviors were initially created. Leaders are challenged to acknowledge existing values and norms, harnessing the best of these qualities, and distilling them into something that can carry the organization forward.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

I myself am currently considering how to evolve the culture within my own company, Village Health Partners. I’m challenged to truly understand VHP’s cultural core. How do I ensure I’m speaking into what’s true versus what I want to be true? All leaders want to believe their organizations have strong, thriving cultures, in the same way we want to believe we’re as healthy as we’ve ever been and our children are straight A students.

Leaders are tasked with finding the quality in their organization that is so infused in the company’s fibers that it’s impossible to suppress. A great illustration of this is attributed to Ralph Larsen, a former executive of Johnson & Johnson, who says that our true core values are the things we’d stick to even if they were competitive disadvantages. I love this perspective because it speaks to the authenticity required when building and owning the culture built within each business. In many ways, it mirrors a similar truth in our personal lives. The things we value most, those qualities that best define us, are the things that we do and show even when they hinder us. Our greatest strengths are often our greatest shadows.

I began my search for VHP’s cultural core in the same place I’d now advise any leader to start: our foundational values. Who would have thought that to get the best sense for what my organization represents, it might indeed be valuable to read the piece of paper with “company values” typed in the header? In this instance, Village Health Partners has values that spell out CARES (Continuous improvement, Access to care, Respect for all, Efficient/effective, Sharing knowledge). And while the other values are important, I believe caring is the best word to encapsulate the culture in my organization. It’s a theme I see repeated in how people in our organization strive to treat all of our stakeholders, employees, physicians, patients, etc. I find it refreshing to work in an environment that overflows with positive, compassionate energy when so many things in the public sphere are overflowing with cynicism. The people at Village Health Partners are at our best when reflecting our deep care and concern for the wellbeing of our community, our patients, our employees, and our providers.

Culturally-minded leaders armed with a deeper understanding of their organization should ask themselves: can their culture (as they understand it) weather the challenges they face in the immediate future? Does the culture need to adapt and evolve? For VHP, we have benefited greatly from our culture of compassion, but we experience many challenges from the things that are not readily rooted in our culture. We’re in the midst of trying to adapt our organization from one that’s been led by a small handful of strong charismatic leaders to one that’s democratically led by the physician owners. We need more stakeholder involvement and engagement from our medical providers, an area where we’ve struggled. With more disciplined processes for soliciting provider feedback and engagement, our business can tackle more nuanced strategic priorities.

After determining the needed changes within their organization, leaders should evaluate if a cultural shift is really something that can be prioritized in their current environment. Will this be considered of larger strategic value by their senior leadership? Many organizations give lip service to culture and notions of evolving the workplace; few are willing to make the trade-offs necessary in understanding their opportunities for improvement and investing in real change. VHP has a sincere desire for investing in our workplace, as we believe that businesses can only grow by continuously improving and evolving.

Secondly, does the organization have a shared understanding of the current cultural state and an understanding of the changes necessary to move the company forward? Leaders can only lead by enrolling others in their vision, so an individual executive can only make improvements by getting buy-in from the other leaders and managers that will be doing the day-to-day work. Recently, I’ve taken asked our management team their thoughts on VHP’s culture and the associated challenges. From this discussion, we’ve developed a path for cultural growth that we believe will inspire others.

Third, leaders need to develop models and standards for behavior that accurately reflect and reinforce the unified culture they’re trying to build. The actions and behaviors that appreciably build towards the desired culture need to be modeled and incentivized and the actions or behaviors that steer away from the goal need to be repelled and extinguished. Be sure that there are guidelines that the initial stakeholders buy into. For VHP, we’re working on standards for citizenship that set expectations for what’s expected from our providers. As part of this exercise, we’re outlining minimum standards for our providers so they understand the core expectations. With this simplified standard, we’re making it easier to engage with physicians that aren’t contributing to our culture of shared leadership and responsibility.

The last step is the hardest: how can leaders internally communicate the cultural vision in a way that minimizes pushback? You don’t want all of your stakeholders to reflexively reject your vision because the change seems too difficult or the goal too abstract. For VHP, the changes will be subtle and the framework will emphasize the ability for providers to win. We’ll communicate that the expectations have always been there, but now the expectations are going to be explicit instead of implicit, allowing for us to ensure expectations are uniform and that we have a consistent language.

Leaders are constantly challenged to take abstract, philosophical concepts and turn them into pragmatic, attainable tactics. By approaching culture and cultural shift with these four steps in mind, we demystify the process of adapting for the future. And even if you as the individual aren’t in a role that allows you direct influence on the most critical parts of your organization, you can still be considerate of the above steps and their underlying principles. You can indirectly modify daily behaviors and conversations to begin a subtle shift in your immediate environment. In many ways, we all have an opportunity for leadership and to be a part of the story of change within our organization.